High-Tech Analysis of Ancient Scroll Reveals Plato’s Burial Site and Final Hours

Even if you can name only one ancient Greek, you can name Pla­to. You can also prob­a­bly say at least a lit­tle about him, if only some of the things human­i­ty has known since antiq­ui­ty. Until recent­ly, of course, that qual­i­fi­ca­tion would have been redun­dant. But now, thanks to an ongo­ing high-tech push to read hereto­fore inac­ces­si­ble ancient doc­u­ments, we’re wit­ness­ing the emer­gence of new knowl­edge about that most famous of all Greek philoso­phers — or at least one of the most famous Greek philoso­phers, matched in renown only by his teacher Socrates and his stu­dent Aris­to­tle.

Up until now, we’ve only had a gen­er­al idea of where Pla­to was interred after his death in 348 BC. But “thanks to an ancient text and spe­cial­ized scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy,” writes Smithsonian.com’s Son­ja Ander­son“researchers say they have solved the mys­tery of Plato’s bur­ial place: The Greek philoso­pher was interred in the gar­den of his Athens acad­e­my, where he once tutored a young Aris­to­tle.” This loca­tion was record­ed about two mil­len­nia ago “on a papyrus scroll housed in the Roman city of Her­cu­la­neum,” which was entombed along with Pom­peii by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD.

Like much else in those cities, this scroll was pre­served for cen­turies under lay­ers of ash. It was just one of many scrolls dis­cov­ered in a vil­la, which may have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, back in 1750. But for long there­after, those scrolls were more or less unread­able, hav­ing been so thor­ough­ly charred by the explo­sion of Mount Vesu­vius that they crum­bled to dust at any attempt to unroll them. But “recent break­throughs have allowed researchers to read the frag­ile texts with­out touch­ing them”: wit­ness the projects involv­ing par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

The research project that has deci­phered part of this scroll, a text by the philoso­pher Philode­mus called the His­to­ry of the Acad­e­my — that is, Pla­to’s acad­e­my in Athens — is led by Uni­ver­si­ty of Pisa pro­fes­sor of papy­rol­o­gy Graziano Ranoc­chia. Using a “bion­ic eye” tech­nique involv­ing infrared and X‑ray scan­ners, he and his team have also dis­cov­ered evi­dence that Pla­to did­n’t much like the music played at his deathbed by a Thra­cian slave girl. “Despite bat­tling a fever and being on the brink of death,” writes the Guardian’s Loren­zo Ton­dohe “retained enough lucid­i­ty to cri­tique the musi­cian for her lack of rhythm.” Even if you know lit­tle about Pla­to, you’re prob­a­bly not sur­prised to hear that he was point­ing out the dif­fer­ence between the real and the ide­al up until the very end.

via Smith­son­ian Mag

Relat­ed con­tent:

Researchers Use AI to Decode the First Word on an Ancient Scroll Burned by Vesu­vius

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors, 3D Mod­el­ing & Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

Orson Welles Nar­rates an Ani­ma­tion of Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry

Plato’s Dia­logue Gor­gias Gets Adapt­ed into a Short Avant-Garde Film

How 99% of Ancient Lit­er­a­ture Was Lost

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.



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